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Syracuse begins clean slate at NCAA Tournament, plays Western Michigan

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BUFFALO — The NCAA Tournament brings out the best, and often the worst in teams.

Teams that succeed stick to what has gotten them this far, and try to build upon their main assets. Those that fail are taken out of their comfort level, and forced to play a game that they don’t like or have trouble adapting to.

Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim is of the mindset that what you are during the season is what you are in the NCAA Tournament. Teams that try to be something different are asking for trouble, no matter what their seed.

“After 31 games, we know what we can and can’t do,’’ Boeheim said Wednesday as he prepped for today’s South Region second-round game against Western Michigan at First Niagara Center.

“Offensively, we’ve been challenged at times shooting the ball,” Boeheim added. “But we’ve also done a lot of good things. Defensively, we’ve been pretty consistent and haven’t strayed from our principles.’’

That’s why Boeheim said he feels as good about this team, which started 25-0 then lost five of its past seven games, as he did about last year’s squad. The 2012-13 team also struggled to the end of the regular season then put together a great run to the Final Four.

“We just played so much better during the NCAA Tournament (last year),’’ said Boeheim, making his 32nd NCAA appearance as a coach. “The NCAA is a totally different animal. You can start playing well in one game and it can carry over. Or you can play just OK in your first game and lose to a team playing at a high level.’’

Western Michigan head coach Steve Hawkins, taking only his second Broncos team to the Big Dance, said his team “probably feels much like Syracuse’s. We believe we belong and that we can compete with anybody. Now, it’s a matter of execution and sticking to our game plan.’’

The keys for SU are simple. If it makes some outside shots, it’s tough to defend because the inside game is so strong behind C. J. Fair and Jerami Grant.

However, if sophomore Trevor Cooney continues in a prolonged shooting slump (25 percent in the last eight games), and freshman point guard Tyler Ennis has an off day offensively, the SU offense bogs down and becomes one-dimensional.

“We need more balance,’’ Fair said. “Not just one or two guys, but three or four contributing on offense. And we need to get some easy points from our defense so we don’t have to rely on just the half-court offense.’’

The Broncos are a top-25 team in field goal defense, allowing 40 percent overall and 30 percent on 3-pointers. Their goal is to deny SU open shots, and make the Orange work harder to score as many of the Atlantic Coast Conference teams did.

“They may be struggling offensively, but they are still very talented and have lots of weapons,’’ Western Michigan senior guard David Brown. “We need to keep them away from the offensive boards and limit their second-chance points. Deny them easy points in transition.’’

Defensively, SU must slow down a team that scored 98 points in its Mid-American Conference championship game win over Toledo.

Western Michigan has two outstanding fifth-year seniors in Brown and 6-11 Shayne Whittington, a bunch of other good shooters and a team concept built on great ball movement and finding the open man.

Boeheim is impressed with the Broncos’ talent. “Brown and Whittington can play anywhere in the country,’’ he said. “And their whole team is really good. That’s why they are here.’’

Whittington, an All-MAC first-team performer, gives his club a legitimate inside presence, something Broncos need to attack the Orange 2-3 zone effectively.

“If you can get their minds on what we do in close, it just opens everything else up,’’ said Whittington, who averages 16.3 points and 9.1 rebounds per game. “Working inside-out is always the best way to attack the zone. But theirs, obviously, is a little different than most.’’

Western Michigan had the luxury of playing Eastern Michigan twice (loss and win), where Boeheim disciple Rob Murphy is the head coach. Hawkins said that zone “in principle, has the same qualities as Syracuse. But the players are so different. They have 6-5 or 6-6 wing guys where Syracuse’s are 6-9 and 6-10 with huge wing spans. The size and length of that zone is so hard to duplicate.’’

Hawkins said he’s treating this is “a road game’’ because of SU’s large fan base and the fact that it’s just over two hours from home.

“But I’m more worried about the NCAA atmosphere. We have played fairly well on the road, and our kids are pretty tough.’’

As for being under the radar this year due to his club’s poor finish, Boeheim said, “I don’t really see it that way and I don’t pay much attention to it to be honest. I think we were probably overestimated a little bit when we were 25-0. So we’re probably underestimated now because of what we’ve done the past month. It all evens out. The best teams usually win and advance.’’

If Syracuse wins, it would play the winner of No. 6 Ohio State and No. 11 Dayton in a third-round game Saturday, also at Buffalo.

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